Class Is in Session at Newt University

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The GOP also-ran's latest venture has him seeking a return to his roots as the party's resident educator-cum-traveling salesman.

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Associated Press

TAMPA -- When I walk into Newt University, the Republican convention sideshow being staged by Newt Gingrich in a series of hotel ballrooms, the program has been under way for a while, yet Gingrich is nowhere to be seen. In fact, there is no one on stage at all.

Instead, a video is playing: Mitt Romney, lecturing with a white board about the future of Medicare at a recent press conference. Romney's boardroom gambit was mostly panned by the commentariat, but Gingrich -- now bidding to reclaim his title as the GOP's resident Ideas Man after the unfortunate detour of his 2012 presidential campaign -- appears to have approved of it.

Aaron Schock, the Illinois representative who is, at 31, the youngest member of Congress, is next onstage. "Newt's been the guy for my lifetime," he says, which is not at all an exaggeration. "For him to continue to be the policy heavyweight in this party is very important." The screen to Schock's right turns to the online course materials, sponsored by Kaplan, that offsite students of Newt U. -- Gingrich will later claim 1,000 tuned in -- can use to follow along.

Finally, Gingrich, wearing a dark suit and red tie, lumbers to the stage. "How many of you feel you can go back home a lot better equipped to have this discussion about Medicare?" he says, to applause from the 200 or so audience members, mostly convention delegates. The hotel is home to the Kansas delegation, which prompts Gingrich to muse, "Possibly the finest natural history museum in the country is at the University of Kansas," and also that the state was once the "site of the northernmost Comanche raid." This is the Gingrich we remember from the primary -- the speeches about space travel, the trips to zoos: utterly enraptured with his own intellect, capable by turns of great feats of persuasion and great feats of ridiculousness, a traveling salesman for political arguments dressed up in quasi-academic jargon.

But at Newt U., Gingrich is mostly just the emcee, more curator and host than professor. After noting that it is "very difficult to get the elite media to cover" the devastating effect President Obama has had on the economy, he hands the stage to Jimmy Kemp, son of former vice presidential nominee Jack Kemp, who talks about the need to see through "the unfinished business of supply-side economics." Next up is the television host Larry Kudlow, who decries Keynesianism. There are a couple of Republican governors, and then the Romney campaign's policy director, Lanhee Chen, who accuses Obama in 2012 of being "the first candidate since Mondale campaigning on a platform of tax increases," although in fact Obama did the same thing four years ago.

Gingrich had promised to take questions, but it is already noon, the two hours allotted for the session are up, and he tells us, apologetically, that he must be off to address the Ohio delegates. After a last plug for NewtUniversity.com, he is gone.

As the attendees file out, two delegates from Alaska concur that the Gingrich magic is still intact. "I remember exactly where I was when I first heard about the Contract With America," says 63-year-old Peter Goldberg. "I was living in Florida, actually, in the Army reserve. I was in my driveway."

"I grew up in a Democratic family. My cousin was the three-term governor of Utah, Calvin Rampton," says 59-year-old Jason Rampton. "But we've all now changed over to the dark side because of people like Newt Gingrich. Most Ramptons are now on the Republican side of things."

The two, who are members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Goldberg converted from Judaism), worry that Romney's religion will be an obstacle to some voters -- they frequently meet people suspicious of their faith -- but, they note, there is not much doubt he will carry their state.

"Most of us feel strongly that ANWR should be opened up. I've been up there. There's nothing up there!" Goldberg says. "I've hunted caribou up there. They wander around the pipeline. It doesn't bother them at all."

"The caribou herd has actually tripled in size," says Rampton. "They congregate around the pipeline for warmth in the winter. It's actually helped, if you're a caribou."

Outside the Newt U. classroom, Gingrich's longtime friend and adviser, the former Pennsylvania congressman Bob Walker, says the sessions are intended get into more depth about Republicans' policy ideas than the convention speeches have time for. "Newt being more of an academic in demeanor, I think he came up with the idea and proposed it to the Romney staff," Walker says. "This is a concept he felt very comfortable with, and it's obviously a success."

Though the lecture sessions had initially seemed like a sop to Gingrich to compensate for his exclusion from the convention stage, it was announced at the last minute that he would, in fact, have a spot on the program Thursday night. Walker says Gingrich has a friendly relationship with the Romney team these days, and would not be surprised to be offered a cabinet position in a Romney administration.

But would he take it? Walker doubts that. "I am not certain," he says, "that Newt would want to spend his time running a department and being the manager of a bureaucracy."

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Molly Ball is a staff writer covering national politics at The Atlantic.

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